6 Tips for Parents of Students With Learning Differences

Daniel Paris on the campus of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. Here, he points to the address where he sent his application materials. After dropping out of high school, Daniel Paris was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and multiple learning disabilities, including dyslexia. But with the proper diagnosis, proper advocacy and proper accommodations, he eventually returned to school, completed his degree and went on to become a Harvard graduate student. Learn more about his story. We asked Paris what advice he’d give parents of children with learning disabilities. His thoughts are below:

1. Never lower your expectations for your child | Too often, students with intellectual disabilities are given low expectations because it makes it easier for caregivers and school staff to deal with them. What people believe about intelligence is more important than the actual intelligence. Studies have proven that priming someone to believe in or question their capabilities significantly affects outcomes. Effort does matter more than ability. People who think of intelligence as continuous, malleable and developing are more motivated, try harder and are more successful than people who believe that intelligence is finite and limiting, like an IQ score.

2. Get them evaluated | If you believe at all that your child has more ability, greater intelligence or should be doing better in school than their grades are reflecting, get them evaluated now! Too often, students with learning disabilities are not given what they need because people think that they are lazy, unintelligent or that something else is wrong with them. Do not simply take a teacher’s word for it that your student is lazy or lacks motivation. Schools do not want to test your child because it costs them money! But guess what? They actually receive a huge amount of federal money each year for special education and are required by law to test your student if you make a formal written request to do so. Do not take no for an answer! If your school is really giving you a hard time, reach out to a local parent advocacy group in your neighborhood and contact local newspapers. Find ways to raise hell and get the word out. Not providing a screen reader for someone with dyslexia or a reading disorder is like not providing an interpreter for a student who is deaf. Getting your child accommodations to address their specific learning needs is the difference between your child dropping out of high school with less than a 2.0 GPA and attending Harvard University!
3. Learn about your child’s disability and make sure they are in the most inclusive setting possible | Just because your child has a learning disability does not mean they need to be in special classes. If children with ADHD and learning disabilities are given the resources they need to address their disabilities, they are just as capable of achieving as anybody else. However, many school administrators and general education teachers are not trained or qualified to deal with students who have disabilities. You are your child’s biggest advocate. Make sure they are getting what they need and that their education is not being shortchanged. Do not be afraid to bump heads with the school staff to get this done. This is your child’s future on the line, and the school is required by law to provide education to your student in the least restrictive environment. 4. Work with your student to make sure they understand their disability and that it does not mean they have something wrong with them | People learn in different ways and everyone is unique. Some people need glasses to see, medicine to focus, a quiet place to study, music to do their homework or a snack between meals so they are not grumpy. Everyone operates differently and that is OK! Convincing your child of this may be a long and enduring process because it is a part of the same process of understanding and accepting one’s identity of who we are, what we need, and what our limitations are — the same ones we all still struggle with as grownups! 5. Never give up on your child | When your child is struggling is when they need you the most. All you can do as a parent is provide unwavering love and support. Your child will face a lifetime of putdowns, lowered expectations, doubt, misunderstanding and people giving up on them. They will experience this from their teachers, administrators, counselors, peers, neighbors and potentially other family members. The last thing you want them reflecting on when they have made it through all the twists, turns and bumps in the road and have finally succeeded, is how their own parents gave up on them when times were hard. Remaining optimistic will help your long-term relationship with your child, as well as your emotional well-being. 6. Be patient, resilient, understanding | Sometimes having a student with a disability can be frustrating and test your patience. You advocate for them more than they know and they are not old enough or mature enough to appreciate it. You may spend additional time with them on their homework, collaborate more with their teachers than your other children, deal with their Individualized Education Plan (IEP), or simply expend more energy in raising them than you thought you would have to. All this earns you the right to pat yourselves on the back, but do not ever blame your child for having a disability and do not ever blame yourself either! Instead, continue to work with them, develop strategies conducive to their learning needs, love them, and take care of them like any other child. Also, always feel free to reach out for help if you need it.

In a report on Wednesday’s NewsHour broadcast, health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser travels to Boston to learn more about the role of learning disabilities in the American dropout crisis. Click here for a primer on the set of disorders, and then read a profile of a businessman and poet who transformed his learning disability into a professional and artistic success story. Check the NewsHour’s Health Page throughout the week for more Web-exclusive content.
Do you have a learning disability or someone close to you who does? What advice do you have? Please let us know in the comments.

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